MINNEAPOLIS — For the past two seasons, Minnesota’s last regular-season game meant the last game of the year, period, for the Gophers. That’s not the case this year, though, as Minnesota is bowl eligible and will still have one more game to play after this Saturday’s finale against Michigan State. This game holds plenty of significance for the 5-6 Spartans, who have lost two straight and four of their last five. All five of MSU’s conference losses have been by four points or fewer, and the game against the Gophers could be another close one. Here are five things to watch in Saturday’s regular-season finale at TCF Bank Stadium.
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1. Michigan State needs a win to become bowl eligible. Will it get its sixth win Saturday?
Minnesota already locked up its bowl berth with a win over Illinois two weeks ago. A win Saturday would possibly help the Gophers earn a spot in a better bowl game, but they’re bowling no matter what.
Michigan State, meanwhile, sits at five wins and needs one more victory to become bowl eligible. Saturday’s game against Minnesota is the last chance for the Spartans, who just one year ago appeared in the Big Ten Championship game. The 5-6 Spartans are coming off back-to-back losses to Nebraska and Northwestern, which MSU lost by a combined seven points.
“I think one way or the other Michigan State is going to come in and play good, and we’re in a situation where they need the game to get to a bowl game,” said Gophers head coach Jerry Kill. “So you know they’re going to get their best. … This is an important game because it gets them bowl eligible. But they haven’t slipped any. They’ve just been in a heck of a lot of close games and played a lot of good people. They’re still Michigan State.”
2. How will the Gophers stop Le’Veon Bell? (Or can they?)
Minnesota has faced its share of tough running backs this year, and Bell might rank among the best the Gophers will play against. The Spartans junior enters Saturday’s game as the Big Ten’s second-leading rusher in terms of yards per game (125.6). He’s also scored 10 touchdowns this season, tied for sixth-most in the conference.
Bell’s size makes him a unique back — and a hard one to tackle. Unlike Wisconsin’s Montee Ball (5-foot-11, 215 pounds) or Northwestern’s Venric Mark (5-foot-8, 175 pounds), Bell has plenty of size to him. At 6-foot-2, 244 pounds, he’s a bruiser. He’s surpassed 100 yards in each of his last two games and had a 253-yard game earlier this year.
“You hit him at the line of scrimmage, he’s so big he falls forward for three yards,” said Gophers head coach Jerry Kill. “I think he’s carried it 26 times in the first half. I think the next back’s only had 15 carries all year. So he’s going to get the ball.”
3. Can Minnesota’s passing game get on track against a tough MSU defense?
Last weekend against Nebraska, the Gophers threw for just 90 yards on 10-of-28 passing. Freshman starter Philip Nelson struggled, completing just eight of 23 passes for 59 yards and two interceptions — one of which was returned for a touchdown.
Only two Gophers receivers had more than one catch, as sophomore Devin Crawford-Tufts led the way with three catches for 22 yards. The road doesn’t get any easier for Minnesota’s passing offense. The Spartans have allowed just 181.1 yards per game through the air, the third-fewest in the Big Ten (just behind Nebraska, which held the Gophers to 90 yards last weekend).
Michigan State also boasts a stout rushing defense — MSU has allowed just 108.3 yards per game on the ground. But after struggling in the passing game last weekend, Minnesota will need to get its aerial attack back on track.
“It’s all up to our game plan. … We’re just going to play how we’ve always been playing,” Nelson said. “We’re not going to try to do anything new or special. We’re going to try to execute our own plays, and that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to learn to execute better.”
4. Will the A.J. Barker situation be a distraction?
On Sunday, wide receiver A.J. Barker quit the team in a very public manner. The redshirt junior not only announced his decision on Twitter, but also posted a 4,000-word blog post explaining his decision. In the letter, Barker accused coach Jerry Kill of being manipulative. He also described his displeasure with his lack of a scholarship despite being the team’s top receiver, as well as frustration with how his ankle injury was handled.
Because of the way Barker quit the team, Kill had to call an impromptu press conference Monday to address the situation. On Tuesday, players were asked about it as well. They were clearly expecting the questions and likely had a bit of coaching on what to say, as all players who were asked about it simply said it was a matter between Kill and Barker.
The story itself has died down since Sunday. But will it have a carryover effect into Saturday’s game? Kill insists it won’t.
“They’ve been great. All those seniors, they want to concentrate on playing and playing football and concentrate on the guys that are here,” Kill said. “I owe it to those kids that want to be here and gone through it. There’s a lot of them that have gone through a whole lot, so that’s where my focus is going to be.”
5. Which seniors will step up on Senior Day?
The last regular-season home game means it’s the last time Minnesota’s seniors will play a game at TCF Bank Stadium. This year’s Gophers are fortunate, however, as Saturday won’t be their last game. They’ll still have a bowl game after hosting Michigan State.
But Senior Day is always an emotional game, and this year’s crop of seniors have been through quite a bit during their time on campus. From coaching changes to injuries to the death of their teammate Gary Tinsley this April, it’s been a trying four — or five — years for these seniors.
“It’s closing a chapter. I’ve done a lot of things here,” said senior MarQueis Gray, who has gone from wide receiver to quarterback and now back to wide receiver. “I’ve been through a lot, overcame a lot. But it’s almost my time to leave. I’m truly going to miss this place, my teammates, that stadium and all the fans.”